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The Reluctant Standard Bearer: A Black Scientist's Perspective

Editor's note: Anne Tyler is a pseudonym for a postdoc living and working on the East Coast.

I have read several articles by women discussing how difficult it is to be competitive in science if you want to have children. I understand this concern because I am a woman, and I struggle with this issue as well. However, the issue of being a woman in science is a minor consideration for me. I know this seems like a strange thing to say, but I have always had a more pressing issue that has consumed my efforts. I am a Black Native American or, more simply, Black.

So what is it like to be an underrepresented minority in science? I suppose levels of expectations highlight my experience as a minority scientist. I have found that suddenly I am a representative for my entire race. Specifically, I remember quite clearly the words of one faculty member when I was interviewing for graduate school. This faculty member informed me that since I would be the first Black to come to their department, I had to be the best minority they could find. This professor went on to say that if I failed, they probably would not let anymore of us in.

Although I found this conversation uncomfortable and the expectations daunting, I decided to go to this school because it was close to home. I knew I would need the support from friends and family. Albeit, even at this point, I had no idea how difficult things would seem at times.

Overall, grad school was interesting, to say the least. Surprisingly, my interactions were not full of overt racism, although the occasional ignorant remark did set me off at times. The racism I experience from other Americans has not changed as a result of becoming a postdoc. However, as I progress further along in my career, I am meeting more Europeans and other non-Americans who do not appear to be as racially intolerant as Americans. As a result, I find myself becoming less defensive. But I often wonder if some of the acceptance I experience has to do with the fact that I am quite fair-skinned. Many non-Americans do not think of me as Black, although I think that most Americans have no problem categorizing me as Black. The result is that non-Americans tend to treat me as a scientific peer.

On the other hand, Americans expect me to be either perfect or stupid. Neither of these expectations is preferable. The first expectation is unattainable; the latter is insulting. These expectations often lead me to I feel that everything I do is under intense scrutiny. I always feel I am expected to be perfect. Unfortunately, these feelings are not simply a product of my paranoid thoughts. I have been told as much by my graduate advisor and other well meaning people who tell me that I have to be better than everyone else because of my skin color. These statements are made to me because what I do today will affect how others think about people like me tomorrow. I have been placed into the position of portraying a positive Black image. I am always the serious scientist, rarely laughing and silly.

Although I have only been a postdoc for a little over a year, my first paper (a first-author paper), was accepted this past September and another paper was recently submitted. In other words, I am pretty good at science and I have a very good work ethic. But, as a result of my scientific successes, I feel as if I have the weight of the world on my shoulders. Scientific success seems to imply an obligation to go into academia, especially because I am Black. I hear frequently that, because there are so few of us, it is my responsibility to become a professor. I will admit that I love doing research, but I do not have a great passion for teaching. Yet I feel a responsibility to my community and the greater good.

Even if I could get past the whole issue of unwanted expectations heaped on me by various professors and members of my ethnic community, I know that if I become a professor, I would have to deal again with being "the first" or "the one and only." In reality, I am tired of being alone, and the stress of being the first can wear a person down. So, while other people worry about papers, having families, and benefits issues, I have a slightly different set of issues that weigh on me.

In a nutshell, I never asked to be the standard bearer or a role model. It is a difficult position to be placed in because everything you do is scrutinized. It's a lot of pressure for even the most sane, well-adjusted person. That said, I understand the importance of role models. Other minority professors who I have met, if even only briefly, have served as role models and inspiration for me. Seeing other minorities succeeding in science keeps me going in ways that even my professors and other mentors can't. This is why my being a role model is particularly important to me and to other members of my community. I want other minorities to have the same interest in science that I have. I wish there were more minorities in science, so I participate in activities that allow me to reach out to young scientists.

I guess my main problem is figuring out how I can be a role model and be happy with my career choice at the same time. Although I love science, I have to consider how my career path will affect not just me and my immediate family, but also other people who I don't know and will probably never meet.

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